Today, 214,098 women serve in the U.S. military, representing 14.6 percent of total service members. Hundreds of female soldiers have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy. Two women, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and Specialist Monica Lin Brown, have been awarded Silver Stars—one of the highest military decorations awarded for valor in combat—for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet the U.S. military, at least officially, still bans women from serving in direct combat positions. As irregular warfare has become increasingly common in the last few decades, the difference on the ground between front line and support roles is no longer clear. Numerous policy changes have also eroded the division between combat and noncombat positions. More and more military officials recognize the contributions made by female soldiers. Politicians, veterans, and military experts have begun actively lobbying Washington to drop the ban. And a 2011 survey conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 73 percent of Americans support allowing women in combat. But Congress has not budged.
The most prominent argument used by defenders of the status quo is that women spoil the cohesion and unit bonding necessary for troop effectiveness. Supporters of the ban speculate that women distract men and that they may even “feminize,” or weaken the military. These assumptions prioritize male bonding as an essential military activity and imply that the goal of the military is to enhance masculinity, not protect national security. Moreover, there is significant evidence that male bonding and troop homogeneity can actually hinder group performance. In her analysis of gender integration in the military, Erin Solaro, a researcher and journalist who was embedded with combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, pointed out that male bonding often depended on the exclusion or denigration of women and concluded that “cohesion is not the same as combat effectiveness, and indeed can undercut it. Supposedly ‘cohesive’ units can also kill their officers, mutiny, evade combat, and surrender as groups.” The mechanisms for achieving troop cohesion can also be problematic. In addition to denigrating women, illegal activities, including war crimes, have sometimes been used as a means for soldiers to “let off steam” and foster group unity. In sum, there is very little basis on which to link group cohesion to national security.
Further, the military has actually been strengthened when attitudes have been challenged and changed over the past century. Despite claims in the 1940s that mixed-race units would be ineffective and that white and black service members would not be able to trust one another, for example, integration proved to enhance troop trust and cohesion. Similarly, a 1993 RAND Corporation paper summarizing research on sexual orientation and the U.S. military’s personnel policy found that diversity “can enhance the quality of group problem-solving and decision making, and it broadens the group’s collective array of skills and knowledge.”
Of course, it should come as no surprise that elements of the military want uniformity in the ranks. The integration of new groups always ruffles feathers. But the U.S. military has been ahead of the curve in terms of the inclusion of most minority groups. It was the first federal organization to integrate African Americans. And with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, the military now has more progressive policies toward gay employees than many other U.S. agencies. In September 2012, one year after the repeal of DADT, a study published by the Palm Center found that the change “has had no overall negative impact on military readiness or its component dimensions, including cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.” The research also found that overall, DADT’s “repeal has enhanced the military’s ability to pursue its mission.” Previous claims about the negative impact that gay service members might have on troop cohesion mirror those currently used to support the female combat exclusion.
Unsubstantiated claims about the distracting nature of women, the perils of feminine qualities, and the inherent manliness of war hardly provide a solid foundation on which to construct policy. Presumably, some levels of racism and homophobia also persist within the military, yet it would be absurd, not to mention unconstitutional, for the U.S. government to officially sanction such prejudices. The U.S. military should ensure that it is as effective as possible, but it must not bend to biases, bigotry, and false stereotypes.
Just as when African Americans were fully integrated into the military and DADT was repealed, lifting the combat ban on women would not threaten national security or the cohesiveness of military units; rather, it would bring formal policies in line with current practices and allow the armed forces to overcome their misogynistic past. In a modern military, women should have the right to fight.
This is a condensed version of an essay that will appear in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs.